Where I Am: Twenty Minutes from Alaska

“[‘Nature’] always happens in a place, and generally, whatever you see and learn, you do so in a small place…So why not look around and see where you are?”    – Gary Snyder, The Etiquette of Freedom


My sons’ mother and I had barely pulled into town in August 2003 when longtime residents informed us, “Alaska is twenty minutes outside Anchorage.” The fact that our newly adopted city wasn’t in league with the Truly Wild and Last Frontier initially struck me as unfortunate and disheartening. I’d held higher hopes for the place in which we’d soon start raising a family.

Still, it was helpful to learn that sage little chestnut. It alleviated some of my bewilderment towards the city we had – albeit, a little impulsively – elected to call home for the next couple years (which has since become ten, though that’s a different story).

Only days earlier, after nearly two weeks spent road tripping from my city of origin, Philadelphia, and through some of the most scenic and jaw-dropping wilderness areas in North America, I pulled into Anchorage feeling just a little duped, appearing to have landed…in South Jersey?

To the new arrival – especially one from a major metropolitan area relocating to Alaska’s largest city – Anchorage looks less like the Metropolis of the North than a complex and intricately woven web of strip-malls, each of which rests couched in the massive, sprawling lots that contain them.

And for the first few years that we lived here, that’s all I could see. It ate at me constantly: Never mind brown bears and wolverines! How have you people survived such garish aesthetics? You’re an architect? Can’t you do something about all this?

So, while we were married, the kids’ mom and I thrilled in every possible opportunity to peel past the city limits, beyond the gaudy shopping centers and stop-and-go traffic, spilling headlong into the jaw dropping landscapes always twenty minutes or more beyond Anchorage. And in that way, yes, we’re very spoiled here. I won’t pretend otherwise: It’s incredible. It is Alaska out there. With camping gear and rations packed, the grand SUV of fat-tired strollers in the trunk, and a Baby Bjorn strapped to one of our chests, we were often wilderness bound, city-free, and soon romping around in a real-life postcard in no time.

However, when I became a single dad to my two boys a couple years ago, those postcard-romps became a little more difficult to achieve. Not impossible, but a whole lot tougher to pull off single-handedly, much less with anything remotely resembling frequency, or urgency, or – more recently – even energy and drive.

Between parenting, domestic duties, juggling a couple jobs, and moonlighting as a musician, nothing seems more adventurous or wild in my mind many nights than a solid, single night’s sleep.

Nowadays, I’m happy to let the John Krakauers reveal their life-altering Into the Wild and Into Thin Air adventures (and misadventures), if only because I’m trying to conquer the Mount McKinley of laundry piles preventing me from freely collapsing to my bed, or couch, or both. By day’s end, a few meals worth of dishes in the sink, and a minefield of the boys’ most sinister, microscopic Legos embedded in the carpet – brilliant for late night, barefoot walks across the living room – the only adventure you stand to sell me features red wine and my guitar.

The Baroness, the apartment complex in which I reside and spend part of each week with my sons, is nothing to look at. In fact, let’s disregard the building. If you visit, I’ll want to turn your attention the other direction. From our second floor balcony, turn your gaze towards the Chugach Mountains strung along the horizon line, the not too distant range resting there, cradling our funky and flawed effort at a ready-made city, oblivious to our mess. We witness the moon’s cycles, sunrises, and sunsets from this same landing, too. In recent years, even despite the nearby city lights, I’ve somehow seen a handful of aurora displays dance across the winter’s night sky from our building’s front yard.

There’s a creek a short walk away from the apartment, running along a trail network that winds the length of the city. These days it strikes me as only regrettable that during all the years we were firing up the Forester and blowing out of town towards postcard-worthy locations, I never acknowledged or considered this minor-miracle trail network for the nearby wonder it today, time and again proves to be for me. Could I have survived my failed marriage without this stretch of winding path, without the creek’s song singing me through any number of the soul’s dark spells all those long nights a couple years ago?

Sure, the creek is frequently littered with empty cigarette cartons, Wal-Mart bags, and spent liquor and beer bottles. But in recent years I’ve come to adore and rely on how the sun’s light hits the water and trees lining its banks a million different ways in every day. The creek, too, runs in every season, even under the ice that will soon cover it. And its song never changes. I’ve only recently begun to hear that song, and it seems a timeless one, moving to some universal heart’s rhythm, a lulling song that – if it used words – might croon,

“Here You Are,

Here You Are…

And Here You Are…”

Chester Creek, AK



6 Thoughts.

  1. I really appreciated this, as Albuquerque strikes me similarly to Anchorage — we have all the dust of New Mexico, but none of the desert. Or so it can seem, until you look around. What a lovely ode to the beauties in our back yards.

  2. I read your piece yesterday, and I have been carrying it around in my mind as I live my ordinary life in my ordinary place. I love the contrast you paint between the post-card worthy vistas, and the small, sustaining beauty of the creek in your backyard.

    Your words are helping me to look for the sustaining beauty that surrounds me. Thank you.

  3. Jonathan, thank you for this gorgeous piece. I love how you, a musician, speak about the creek’s song, how it sang you “through any number of the soul’s dark spells.”

  4. Thank you for this, Jonathan. Such a lovely word picture of your life. I love being able to look back and see the beauty in the unexpected things I’ve walked into, and it was delightful to see some of those through yours.

  5. Nice thoughts. I should clarify that the pic isn’t of the creek! It’s a favorite destination, however – West Chester lagoon – and where the creek and trails lead. A little past the lagoon in that pic lies the ocean and that view is “smashing.” I read Gary Snyder’s “Practice of the Wild” a few years ago and that – along with revisiting Annie Dillard and Mary Oliver – was the real “game changer” for me, helping me to make peace with where I found myself and to revel in the “minor miracles” I felt otherwise blind to before. So, thanks. Anchorage is full of natural beauty and secret, hidden wonders and there wasn’t enough space or time to explore that, too. Hopefully in another post. Thanks for the feedback!

  6. First of all, I love Gary Snyder. Second of all, that’s a picture of your CREEK? Creeks around here do not look like they look in Alaska. 🙂

    More importantly, I love this honest, raw-but-beautiful picture you paint of your life in Anchorage. If you’re an optimist, like me, things are never quite as lovely (inside or out) as you imagine they will be. Embracing that dichotomy as soon as possible, as you have, is the surest route toward contentment.

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